All of Us review – Francesca Martinez’s urgent call for radical empathy | National Theatre

AFrancesca Martinez’s urgent, funny and intensely moving play begins, two women – one with cerebral palsy (“I prefer ‘wiggle'”), the other able-bodied – arrive for a therapy session. We might assume that the disabled woman is the patient, but in the first of many inversions of expectation, it is not. Jess (Martinez) is the compassionate therapist…yet she can’t take her own advice and expose her anger, need, and vulnerability.

Personally, politically, even polemically, All of Us was programmed before the lockdown, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the atrocities of the austerity measures. Healthcare is shrinking, support is being given up. There’s a lot to be upset about, but Jess keeps emotions in check. Both the physical and emotional labor of Martinez’s performance is striking. “Let the shaky anger out!” urges her neighbor, but it doesn’t come up anytime soon. She insists everything is fine, even if she is left half clothed while the lights go out.

Georgia Lowe’s raspberry carpet stage has a central twist and this piece makes us contemplate people from every angle. Under the precise but delicate direction of Ian Rickson, they reveal their dimensions: specifically Bryan Dick’s unruly, tearing patient and a glowing Francesca Mills, whose character may use a wheelchair but gleefully refuse piety, preferring a spliff and a Tinder hookup (“I am a floaty floozy”).

Although the play is based on awkward, extended conversations, the characters hate discussing disabilities or needs. That’s not who they are. But whether they talk formally or casually, they are dragged back to whatever stands in their way or needs to explain. Martinez captures every evasion, frustration, or humorous deflection, but as the cuts bite even harder and the action expands to include public gatherings with a sharky local MP, dodging isn’t an option.

While much of her life falters, Jess admits that she is attracted to excessive control. Some of the play’s jokes and arguments end up on the nose, but it requires that we build a society where we can really see and appreciate each other. His emphasis on radical empathy shines brightly. “I’m not broken,” Jess claims. “I am a unique spark of life. We are all.”

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